The new Broken Plate report by the Food Foundation looks at the state of the nation’s food system in 2021. A key finding of the report is that healthy options need to be made more affordable if they are to be accessible to low-income households.
The report explains that poorest fifth of UK households would need to spend 40% of their disposable income on food to meet the Eat Well Guide costs. This compares to just 7% for the richest fifth. It also finds that healthier foods are nearly three times as expensive as less healthy foods calorie for calorie.
The report argues that low wages are a big contributing factor to this problem, citing the example of people who work in the food industry itself who, perhaps ironically, are typically on very low wages. One in seven people had jobs in the food industry before Covid-19 (GOV.UK, 2020), but this sector has one of the highest rates of low paid jobs, in addition to having been heavily impacted by restrictions during the pandemic.
What is being done to help?
Several existing government schemes seek to make healthy food more accessible to those living on a low income. These include the Healthy Start scheme (Best Start Foods in Scotland), the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme (England only), Free School Meals, and the Holiday Activities and Food programme (England only). Despite these measures, the data presented in the report show that a healthy diet remains out of reach for many. A major challenge is that the cost of a healthy and sustainable diet is not currently accounted for by the government when setting benefits levels and minimum wage levels.
The government has also introduced several new policies in recent years which may help to start rebalancing the cost of more healthy vs. less healthy foods:
In 2018 the government introduced a levy on sugary drinks (24p per litre of drink containing more than 8g of sugar per 100ml. In 2020 the government also confirmed that it will be regulating to restrict promotions of foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) by volume online and in store – prohibiting HFSS products to be offered as part of ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ and ‘3 for 2’ offers, or similar.
In 2021 the value of vouchers issued through the Healthy Start scheme was increased from £3.10 to £4.25, enabling low-income pregnant women and care-givers of children under 4 to more easily afford healthier foods such as fruit, vegetables and pulses.
As for wages, the government’s National Living Wage (for workers over the age of 23) is currently set at £8.91 per hour and the National Minimum Wage (for workers age 21 and over) at £8.36 per hour. There is no higher weighting for London. Despite a recent increase, this remains below the Real Living Wage as calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, which is currently set at £9.50 per hour nationally and £10.85 in London, and is applicable for all workers over the age of 18.